So SEK put me in an unusual position in his post on so-called “Social Darwinism.” My professional persona is very interested in his arguments. SEK present a compelling argument, at least from what I can tell in such a short post. I was somewhat aware of Richard Hofstadter’s role in creating this narrative and given his influential role in making a generation of American intellectuals think the Populists were a bunch of reactionary yokels, I’m not surprised he would create a past to serve his New Deal political aims. If my work dealt with these issues in any way, I’m sure I’d at the very least mention SEK’s dissertation in a footnote if not center it in the argument.
Temperamentally, I am completely down with all of this. I dislike mythology of any kind and so I really appreciate having a more accurate accounting of this line of thought. It’s probably a bit too detailed to affect how I teach my Gilded Age course too much, but I will probably change the wording when I talk about these issues to express SEK’s general idea.
On the other hand, I also have a political persona. These two personas may inform each other, but they aren’t the same thing. In the political arena of this blog or the larger national narratives, so-called Social Darwinism evokes a series of thoughts and impressions that do political work for us. People don’t by and large know a lot about the Gilded Age. There’s only a certain amount of terms a writer can use with even an educated audience like we have here at LGM that will create a response. And Social Darwinism is so ingrained with a series of pernicious ideas that allow a writer to move a conversation without getting bogged down in explanations that it’s hard to see replacing it with Lamarckianism or Spencerism or Sumnerism. Nobody would know what I’m talking about and my argument would be diluted or lost.
Social Darwinism may be mistitled, but it is too useful to give up when talking about the Gilded Age in a public forum, even for the noble cause of historical complexity and accuracy. But I probably will include an asterisk with a link to SEK’s post every time I use it here in the future.